The trend is frightening and cannot be denied. To quote the Department of Health and Human Services: "Our nation is in the midst of an unprecedented opioid epidemic."
In 2015, more than 33,000 Americans died from an opioid overdose and drug overdose deaths nearly tripled during 1999–2014, with 61 percent of those resulting from opioids. The opioid crisis is heightened among baby boomers and millennials in their 20s and 30s, according to HealthDay.
The crisis is clear, but the solution for parents of young children is not. It's tough to balance drug awareness and prevention for young kids against frightening them or inadvertently educating them about where to find opioids and other drugs. Parents are often left feeling helpless in the tide of drug abuse and opioid deaths that bridge all age groups, income levels and racial distinctions.
But there are steps parents can and should take, according to addiction and medical experts. Nonmedical use of prescription opioids was highest among adults ages 18-25, many of whom likely began using drugs and alcohol in adolescence, often early adolescence, Dr. Robert DuPont, president of the Institute for Behavior and Health, told U.S. News and World Report.
To counter early-onset drug and alcohol use, the conversations should begin as early as preschool age, according to Tina Muller, program manager for the family wellness department at Mountainside Treatment Center in Canaan, Connecticut, who spoke to U.S. News.
Muller and other experts provide these five tips for age-appropriate ways to talk to kids about the lethal opioid epidemic:
Educate yourself first
To talk intelligently with your child, you'll need to know what opioids are, how they work in the brain and body and how to spot signs of use, according to Margie Skeer, an associate professor of public health and community medicine at Tufts University.
"Parents shouldn't convey misinformation," she said. "If their children find out that what they've been told isn't accurate, they may turn instead to their peers for information."
Skeer recommends online resources like the National Institute on Drug Abuse for Teens website. It's particularly important to note the long-term effects that nonmedical use of opioids can have on adolescents. Around puberty, the brain starts a massive restructuring process and during this time the results of certain activities can get 'hard-wired' into the brain. "If a young person is engaged in academics, sports or learning a musical instrument, those connections get set in the brain," she said. "If they spend a lot of time using drugs, those could be the connections that stick. That means they'd have an increased chance of developing a substance use disorder later in life."
Use vitamins as an example
Muller advised parents to broach the subject with preschoolers without explicitly talking about opioids. Instead, use vitamins as an anology. "Explain to them that vitamins are good for you and will help you to grow up to be big and strong, but they can also be harmful if you take too many. This will start the understanding that while medicine can be helpful, it can also be harmful if taken in wrong amounts or in the wrong way."
Talk often; broaden the conversation as your child gets older.
The conversation should expand as children get older. When you take medications, explain what they are for and the importance of taking them correctly, Muller suggested. In the middle school years, she recommends asking children what they know about drugs. "What have they seen on TV or heard from their peers? Has their favorite musician or actor been in a drug scandal? Open up the lines of communication."
Skeer added that parents should continually remind themselves that this is a critically important topic. "Pretending that opioid use is not a problem - or thinking that a child is a 'good kid' and therefore doesn't need to hear and talk about it - is a mistake. Being a 'good kid' does not mean that an adolescent will not be curious or be tempted by peers."
Be honest: drugs can make you feel good
Drugs are alluring and kids should find that out from you, so they don't get a hard sell from someone else. Speaking in U.S. News, Nasir Naqvi, an assistant professor of clinical psychiatry at Columbia University, chose these words for parents to use: "Drugs can make you feel good, and like many things that make you feel good, they can also damage you, especially because you can lose control and they have harmful effects on your body." Naqvi recommended acknowledging that drugs can temporarily make you feel euphoric or like you're escaping your life. If you only discuss the negative repercussions you may lose your credibility.
Reveal any genetic factors
Find out for yourself and then let kids know if addiction runs in your family, Howard Samuels, owner and CEO of The Hills Treatment Center in Los Angeles, told U.S. News. "It's in the DNA," he said. "You have a higher risk of alcoholism or addiction if you have a family history. In 25 years in this field, I've done thousands of assessments, and 80 to 90 percent of the time when someone is struggling with substance abuse, there was a family member who was an alcoholic or an addict." Letting his own kids know about their family's addictive streak has made them more apprehensive about drugs, Samuels said.